Ten years on from Iraq, two years on from the first shots in Syria, Karen Orton asks the war journalist why the need for arms control has never been stronger
The extended interview, from the April Issue of Dazed & Confused:
Last year, veteran photojournalist and filmmaker Paul Conroy was in Homs reporting on the Syrian army’s massacre of its citizens, when he and fellow journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were hit by a missile. Colvin and Ochlik were killed instantly, while Conroy, who was behind them, bending down to pick up his camera, was badly injured. Ambulances were sent under the pretence of taking him to the hospital, with instructions to shoot him and blame it on opposition forces. Conroy didn’t get into the ambulance – instead he was smuggled out across the Lebanese border.
It seems fitting that just over a year after Conroy’s escape from Syria, the longstanding UN Arms Trade Treaty negotiations reach their culmination during March 18–28 in New York. This is the make-or-break moment for an agreement to control global arms sales and transfers, particularly to prevent them being used to commit human-rights violations. Despite still receiving surgery for his injuries, Paul Conroy met with Dazed to speak about the UN Arms Trade Treaty and his experiences on the field.
If there was an Arms Trade Treaty, would the Syrian government’s attack on you and Marie Colvin still have happened?
Paul Conroy: If there’d been an arms treaty in place at that time, I think it would’ve been almost impossible. At the rate these guys were firing, they needed a constant supply of fresh ammunition. A Russian-made Katyusha rocket hit the doorway of our building, causing complete devastation. It was one of four that hit our building, and we had a lot more weapons thrown at us that day too. In the neighbourhood we were in, Baba Amr, homes are still being attacked with the same weapons. That supply should have been exhausted long ago. And the only people with those weapons and ammunitions are Russia.
How do the Russians get away with it?
Paul Conroy: I was on a panel with a Russian member of the embassy in Parliament, and I said, ‘Can I ask you several questions with yes or no answers? Are you aware that Syria is using Russian weapons in Syria?’ He said yes. ‘Are you aware that they are being used against the civilian population?’ He said yes. ‘Have you got any intention of stopping the supply of weapons and ammunitions?’ He said, ‘No, if we don’t do it, somebody else will,’ which is what crack dealers say when they’re caught selling outside schools. Putin has blood on his hands, but he’s an old KGB hoodlum who runs Russia like his personal fiefdom. Russia can turn off the gas to Europe – there are a lot of reasons why the west sits and trembles when Putin ignores international conventions. There’s nothing the world can wave in Putin’s face and say ‘Look, you’re contravening this‘. The Arms Trade Treaty could be used to hold him accountable.
Putin has blood on his hands, but he’s an old KGB hoodlum who runs Russia like his personal fiefdom. The Arms Trade Treaty could be used to hold him accountable.
How would the treaty affect the sale and transfer of weapons?
Paul Conroy: The Arms Trade Treaty puts the emphasis on the manufacturers and suppliers who issue the final-destination certificates: they would be responsible for ensuring the weapons go to a government that won’t use them for repression or spread them on to the black market. At the moment, there’s more legislation on the traffic of bananas than for arms.
Would this stop the illegal arms trade?
Paul Conroy: I don’t think it would stop it, but it would put in place a set of rules that could be used to combat illegal trade. These weapons come from legitimate sources, then there’s corruption within governments, and once they hit the black market, they can end up anywhere. In Libya we used to watch truck loads of stuff coming through, some of it was from North Korea disguised as bulldozer parts and you’d open it up and there were missiles. With the Arms Trade Treaty, if, for example, a shipment of ammunitions came into Egypt and was sent to various locations, then you could say, ‘Hang on, these weapons were meant for the Egyptian military. So the treaty would provide a basis, at least, to start cracking down.
So what will happen at the UN negotiations? Will Russia prevent the Arms Trade Treaty from going through?
Paul Conroy: If the Russians don’t get on board, it can go to the Security Council on a majority vote and go through. The problem is they could get a lock tight agreement on weapons, but there are a lot of clauses that are still quite weak with regards to the ammunitions, which defeats the purpose, because there are a lot of weapons already out there and all they need are the ammunitions. So unless they bring in ammunitions, parts and servicing under that treaty, then it will be very weak. Ammunitions have got to be included for it to work.
The Saudi government uses a lot of British equipment to suppress their own people. But we’re happy for our politicians to go on advertising trips to Saudi, selling our weapons at the trade conventions.
What’s the UK’s role in global
Paul Conroy: Britain is one of the biggest arms dealers in the world, after the States. There’s a lot of money in weapons deals. We sell weapons and our responsibility ends as soon as they leave the country, they’re unpacked, and then before you know it, they’re spread around the world. It’s the same with all countries that export arms, they have very little interest in the end-use. The treaty would focus minds on who we’re selling to. Is it right to sell huge amounts of weapons to Saudi Arabia, one of the least democratic states in the world? The Saudi government uses a lot of British equipment to suppress their own people. But we’re happy for our politicians to go on advertising trips to Saudi, selling our weapons at the trade conventions.
But would an Arms Trade Treaty stop UK and US trade with countries like Saudi Arabia, if they’re considered a strategic ally?
Paul Conroy: You know, we choose who we sell to now, but it’s such a grey area. But if there was something in place saying, ‘You’re supplying weapons to a country that uses torture’. It all depends who’s in favour. You know, we sold a lot of weapons to Iraq when Saddam was at war with Iran. So when we went to attack Iraq, we knew exactly what weapons we were facing because we still had the receipts.
Do you think we still need a weapons trade?
Paul Conroy: I don’t really see why. There are enough weapons in the world at the moment. It’s politics, it’s British jobs. So many times I’ve seen the effect these weapons have on people, and they’re very rarely used in the correct context.
What would the “correct context” be?
Paul Conroy: The weapons used in urban environments are battlefield weapons that are meant to be used against tanks, not civilians. In Syria, you’re not talking about rubber bullets and tear gas. We’re talking about Katyusha rockets, 155mm field guns, just about every weapon you could imagine. There’s very little need to use 120mm rockets, which are extremely inaccurate. Their correct military use is to lay down a barrage of fire to prevent the mass movement of heavy weapons and troops across open terrain. It’s one thing to fire a rocket into the desert at a concentration of troops. It’s another thing to take that same rocket and fire it into a civilian neighbourhood. There is no control over where it lands and who it hits. People get killed not so much by the blast, but by the amount of shrapnel that ricochets around an urban neighbourhood when one rocket lands. It’s far more devastating than the effect it has fired into a desert. And the rules of war are, you must avoid, at all costs, civilian targets. There’s a huge difference between armies fighting it out in the desert and men, women and children sheltering in concrete two-storey buildings. These weapons just decimate them.
Anybody caught without visas was to be executed on the spot, and their body thrown on to the battlefield and made to look like they were caught in crossfire.
You and Marie Colvin were reporting on these civilian deaths when you were targeted last year...
Paul Conroy: Yes, we were trying to get to the field clinic when we were hit, ironically. We’d had pictures printed the week before from the field. They were stacking bodies up, bringing kids in. It was just an unending supply of carnage. They’d sew up what they could, half of them would die on the table and they’d put them in a pile, bury them at night, and then they’d bring the next wave in, and the next wave – that’s how it went.
Were those victims mainly opposition forces or civilians?
Paul Conroy: There were no opposition forces. There were about 253 Free Syrian Army soldiers in Baba Amr at this point. Occasionally one would get hit, but mostly, if not all the time, it just was civilians, caught in the street, caught in their homes, whole building would come down. The Free Syrian Army, at that time, were a couple of guys with Kalashnikovs hiding in the rubble with the occasional RPG to stop a tank coming in. They couldn’t really be classified as military targets. What was happening in Baba Amr was about breaking the symbolic heart of the resistance. At the time I said, ‘This is not the end, this is the beginning,’ and a year on, we’ve got Syria as it is now.
Did Assad’s forces have you under surveillance?
Paul Conroy: Yes, their intelligence is incredibly strong. Our phones and computers were being hacked, we had a code going back to London. We’d been warned they were looking specifically for foreign journalists. Anybody caught without visas around Homs was to be executed on the spot, and their body thrown on to the battlefield and made to look like they were caught in crossfire. So that’s what we went in with.
We had pictures and films up and we had Marie describing the deaths of men, women, children. Just before, they had hit the media center where we were broadcasting. You can rule out coincidence.
How did they find you in the end?
Paul Conroy: The bombardments had just got so out of control. This was like, a Tuesday, and with the situation we were in, Sunday seemed like a hell of a long way away for our Sunday Times deadline. So we just did outright, brazen live reports from Baba Amr for CNN, BBC and Channel 4. We were just sitting there in a room – it’s hard to describe the intensity of the bombardment, but the end was in sight. It was just like, ‘Shall we do it? Yep.’ Then we went to bed and literally six hours later, Marie was dead. We had rattled too many cages in Damascus. We had pictures and films up and we had Marie describing the deaths of men, women, children. Just before, they had hit the media center where we were broadcasting. You can rule out coincidence.
After you were injured, Syrian government forces sent ambulances where they planned to shoot you?
Paul Conroy: That’s right. Yeah, I didn’t fancy that. It sounded like the lesser of two good options [laughs]. The ambulances were a trap, and we were told by the Red Crescent, ‘Do not get in the ambulance’. It was kind of hard to see them go, but the end result wouldn’t have been too pleasant.
How important is it to have a trustworthy network of contacts?
Paul Conroy: Without them, you’d last about ten minutes before you were killed. You’d just stumble into a roadblock, and they don’t even ask questions they just shoot and it would be over. The people you choose are vital for just staying alive, let alone reporting or getting anywhere. It’s a slow process. You meet one person, you get their trust, there’s a lot of checking out to see if you are who you said you are. It can be really frustrating waiting for three days in a house - ‘any news?’ ‘nope’, but you’re just letting these guys do things at their own pace. It’s always to your detriment if you try and hurry them. If they get sloppy and make a mistake, the results can be pretty horrendous for you.
Without doubt, journalists are now targeted deliberately. I mean, the death toll for journalists last year in Syria was the highest on record for any country.
Is it unusual that war journalists have become direct targets now?
Paul Conroy: Well I used to run around the Balkans and go for a drink with the Serbs, and then I’d go and cover the Albanians, you could see two sides of the story. Now, you’d be a fool if you tried to cross between the rebels and Assad’s people. I think, without doubt, journalists are now targeted deliberately. Propaganda’s half the war, it doesn’t do anyone any favours to have the other half getting stories out. I mean, the death toll for journalists last year in Syria was the highest on record, I think, for any country. WWII was the last time that we had a higher number of deaths in one country.
But you and Marie felt it was worth the risk?
Paul Conroy: Yeah, it was our only option. In Libya we were welcomed with open arm, whereas in Syria, it was a different ball game. From the moment you went into the country, there was no safe zone, the battle was very much all around you, you always had to be aware they were only 500 meters from where you were. It’s quite a strain over a few weeks. You’re thinking you’ve got a minute or two and then they’re coming to get you, and then the only option is to run through a field and to make yourself small.
It takes a certain kind of person to do that.
Paul Conroy: A lunatic (laughs). If Assad’s big enough to wipe out his own countrymen, then he should be able to come out and face me in an interview. I said I’d fly to Damascus, I can do it live, I keep trying to goad him into action but they don’t listen. They’d love to have me; I’m worth a million dollars to them [laughs].
There should have been a humanitarian intervention in Syria a long time ago. Two years is too long to just sit by and watch people die.
What do you think needs to happen in Syria?
Paul Conroy: There should have been a humanitarian intervention a long time ago. Two years is too long to just sit by and watch people die. We should have disabled Assad’s air force, then there’d be no more helicopters with barrels of TNT dropping them on bakeries. They fill a barrel full of high explosives, find a spot where people are queuing for bread and drop a barrel of TNT on civilians. Not one single finger has been raised to prevent a death in Syria at the hands of a mass murderer. Not only have they been bombed, shot at, raped, burned and pillaged, but if they do get out, they sit on the Turkish border freezing to death in –10˚C in the snow, with very little protection. The only real aid that’s getting in there is smaller private charities. We haven’t seen that huge international reaction like we have with other catastrophes and disasters – it just hasn’t happened.
Does it make you angry that you’ve told the world what’s going on, and nothing’s happened?
Paul Conroy: It makes me furious. To come out with the stories, and to come out without Marie and Remi because they died getting the stories, then to present it to the world, and stand there and go ‘Well come on then’ and nothing happens, it’s the most frustrating feeling ever. I’d still do it, but it makes you think there are lot of journalists and activists getting killed, to do exactly what’s been done.
It’s not like the world doesn’t know what’s happening, it’s just choosing for all sorts of geopolitical reasons to do nothing. It’s kind of ironic when you think that the European Union has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. What the hell is that about? For that many countries just to collectively do nothing while sitting on a Nobel Peace prize, it’s disgusting. The Syrians lost out because they happened to have their revolution during an election cycle in America, France, and bizarrely, some kind of election cycle in Russia. Obama wasn’t going to be seen to commit anything to Syria, that would be political suicide, but he’s also got a Nobel Peace Prize sitting on his mantelpiece. America’s made a lot of noise but they’ve done nothing, that’s political cowardice. Essentially it sends out the message to Assad, ‘Do what the hell you like. No one’s coming to get you.’
The day before Marie died, we were sitting there huddled up, wrapped in blankets, and she said, ‘If you weren’t being paid, would you still be here?’ I said, ‘Of course I would,’ and I knew it would be the same for her.
Does the international community’s lack of action make you want to stop doing this?
Paul Conroy: No, it makes me want to shout louder. I think for most people, it really is slightly more than a job. The day before Marie died, we were sitting there huddled up, wrapped in blankets, and she said, ‘If you weren’t being paid, would you still be here?’ I said, ‘Of course I would,’ and I knew it would be the same for her. I don’t like that term ‘adrenaline junkie’, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about telling stories for people that can’t tell those stories. If people didn’t go out there, then they’d be sitting there getting bombed on their own. I wake up every morning and have Marie on my shoulder being like, ‘What are you doing? Get out and do something!’ ’ I don’t think we should stop doing what we do, just because of the tragedies that happen.
Paul Conroy's book about his experiences in Syria, Under the Wire, will be published by Quercus in June.
This is an extended version of an interview in the April issue of Dazed & Confused.